Wednesday, September 16, 2015

album review: 'pagans in vegas' by metric

So here's something I bet the majority of you don't know. Back during the summer of 2012 when I was first getting a handle on making these reviews in written form on my blog, I reviewed Synthetica by Metric, a band that I've tended to like and admire but never quite love, the sort of over-ambitious indie rock act that liked to play with nifty big ideas and anthemic choruses that never quite managed to quite stick the landing, at least for me. Like most people, I started getting into them with the noisier, razor tight Fantasies, a record that anchored its groove in buzzy guitars and synthesizers, punchy drums, and the eerie multitracking of Emily Haines' vocals, and yet always fell a little short for me. Maybe it was the disparity between a great Metric track and a bland one was palpable, maybe it was Emily Haines' vocal timbre feeling perpetually disconnected, or maybe it was the lyrics that didn't hit home as often as they should, but Fantasies was about half of a great record.

And upon reflection, I'd probably make a similar observation about Synthetica, overall a more ambitious, cohesive, and engaging album, but never quite hitting the huge high points of Fantasies with songs like 'Gold Guns Girls' or 'Gimme Sympathy', and it seemed as through the rough edges and grooves were slowly being smoothed away in favour of more mechanical synthesizers. Of course, it fit the running motif of the record, distinguishing that difference between the human and artificial, but with rare exception it felt like only about half of the record really stuck with me. Although here I suspect I'm in the minority, as Metric seemed to only be getting bigger on Canadian alternative radio with an ever-increasing profile as an indie rock act with real crossover potential.

And yet in hindsight, Metric's steps towards new wave and synthpop almost seem prophetic, because over the past two years a considerable number of their peers have gone in the exact same direction. Which might now be the best thing for Metric, especially given they've got close competition from CHVRCHES, whose sophomore album is breathing down their neck right around the corner. And it was further concerning to hear to that this record was supposedly much more synth-driven, with Metric having an entire analog album waiting in the wings. So what did we get with Pagans in Vegas?

Well, here's the thing: on some level, it's a Metric album, for better or worse, and as such features the usual strengths and weaknesses. At its best, it features surprisingly emotive vocals from Emily Haines balanced against killer melodic new wave grooves that fuse sticky synthesizer melodies with roiling guitars and incredibly precise drumwork, all with deft lyricism with nuggets of real power behind deceptively simple lines. And like all Metric albums, it only lands that impact for about half this album, leaving a good record that ends up disappointing because it could have been a great one. In this case, though, Metric's thematic progression takes them into trickier territory, and I'm not quite sure the intended satire hits quite as well as it should.

I should explain, and for once we're going to start with lyrics and themes. As with Synthetica there's a running duality between Metric indie rock 'authenticity' and the synth-driven 'artificiality', but this time Metric steps straight into the synthpop side of the latter, embracing the shallow, borderline-mechanical plastic nature of the music against their 'better' nature in order to subvert it. In short, it's a very similar arc that Icon For Hire took with their self-titled album in 2013, or twenty-one pilots took with Blurryface this year, and like both of those albums, there's the commentary of the genre and the conversation with audience. I like how songs like 'Fortunes' shows them trying to wring real emotion out of a pop music, keep their exuberance, one of the reasons that 'Celebrate' can feel so desperate. I appreciated 'Cascades' implying that once you build momentum in that pop world, you can start to forget that formula that gave you success and fall into aimless repetition. I appreciated how despite the ideals she put forward on tracks like 'Lie Lie Lie' she does succumb to some of the shallow, capricious nature of pop divas on 'For Kicks', and I really liked the spiral out of control that came on 'Too Bad, So Sad', with a just as capricious audience. And as the arc proceeds to Metric trying to win back those old fans or find that middle path, they're smart enough to question the authenticity of the emotions of both sides, how success can prove alienating and lonely while reckless blind love can leave you broke. And the album's conclusion, where they face the very real flaws of their old world with fresh eyes and yet still yearn for it, it's never going to be the same, and the two part instrumental on 'The Face' carries that melancholy exceedingly well. And of course there are plenty of details that pepper songs like 'Lie Lie Lie' and 'The Governess', especially in the former with how Metric 'sell out' to get to the top and yet the wider audience assumes she just 'slept with the director' instead of through any artistic merit. There is that underlying distance and borderline contempt for the pop audience that creeps through on some of these songs, and while it's nowhere near as pronounced as Fall Out Boy's Save Rock And Roll and there is some element of truth in the nuance, especially when it focuses more on the indie fanbase, it can sour the vibe on some songs. 

Okay, so you have the foundation for a really good satire of pop music culture and a lot of the insight is there in the lyrics - but for that nuance to land, there needs to be some sign that Metric can make that brand of synthpop work and show that intoxicating slide, or at least be able to subvert their more pop-flavoured material in a way that doesn't really tarnish the vibe. And this is the first big stumbling point on this record, mostly because while Metric can imitate and mimic mainstream-accessible synthpop, they aren't very good at making quality. That was the hidden trick behind Ke$ha's half-parody material, or the pop rock that Fall Out Boy and twenty-one pilots made - they could still be enjoyed as solid pop songs. But tracks like 'The Shade' and 'Celebrate' and especially 'Blind Valentine' might recall elements of the genre but they don't really hit the high notes. And sure, you could argue some of the blandness is part of the point, but Haines' commentary on 'The Shade' suggests she was going for the straightforward summer song - and as one, it's not very good. 

And before we go deeper into that, let's talk about a surprising development: Emily Haines herself. I've never been wowed by her vocal range, but there's a certain amount of expressiveness that does land success here, and she's able to play the Britney Spears-esque pop starlet alarmingly well. And yet at the same time, she can hop back to her lower register and deliver more soulful, rough-edged material that's more in line with her indie roots and it sounds really good. And I honestly don't even mind the heavy autotune that was piled on 'Cascades' - thematically it fits, and Emily Haines can pull off the Vocaloid impression pretty well. That said, the inclusion of the male vocals on 'The Other Side' really fell flat for me - I get why they were included to show that other side, potentially representing the forgotten fans or even playing the track more intimately, but they weren't nearly as compelling.

But we've beat around the biggest issues for a while: let's talk about the instrumentation and production. And here's the thing, like most Metric albums there are great songs here and I can pinpoint exactly why: the grooves. On the surface I'm not against the heavier addition of keyboards and synthesizers and effects - the chintzy eerieness flowing into the gorgeous, Ayreon-esque sound on 'Fortunes', the rubbery synth balancing against that oily groove on 'Too Bad, So Sad' with the great guitars on the hook, the bluesy snarl that drives 'Lie Lie Lie', the acoustic groove balances against the springy effects on before picking up more swell on 'Governess', and the two-part instrumental that ends out the album, almost all keyboards, was solid as well. But the majority of these songs are rooted in that more propulsive, lower guitars to drive momentum - without them, many of the synthesizers feel oddly runny and smeared against the razor-thin percussion, and many of them have too many chiptune sputters and swirls to balance well. Many of these songs just feel overmixed, worst of all on the choppy acoustic strums that build to the lumbering synth on 'Blind Valentine'. And that's before we get songs like 'Cascades' and 'For Kicks' that might as well stand as love letters to Depeche Mode and The Cure - which would be fine if the tone was consistent. Don't get me wrong, I love those acts, but the tonal whiplash that comes on the upbeat chorus of 'For Kicks' adds a considerable crack to that post-punk vibe. And as I said, when Metric goes for pure pop, I can appreciate the genre imitation, but there could have been more life and colour to these synth tones and more momentum.

As a whole, I really wanted to like this album a lot more than I do. Conceptually and lyrically, there's a ton to like, and I always appreciate the meta-commentary that comes with albums like these. But instrumentally, it's not as tight or as nuanced in the choice of grooves or synth tones to back up those lyrics. For me, it's a light 7 out of 10 and a recommendation for any fans of Metric, but we're in a year of a lot of synthpop, and I can see this album getting overshadowed as early as next week, so good luck remembering it.

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